Those who are expecting something new, intriguing or memorable have entered the wrong theater. This screen is reserved for Jaume Collet-Sera’s “Jungle Cruise,” an adaptation of a popular theme park attraction that’s specifically designed to hit your brain’s retro pleasure centers with pulpy thrills, Adventureland references, and lots and lots of quips.
We’re not here to break the mold. We’re here to re-familiarize ourselves with the concept of molds.
The “Jungle Cruise” ride is familiar to many, of course. It was an opening-day attraction at Disneyland back in 1955 and, until relatively recently, little about it changed for around half a century. Inspired in no small part by the hit film “The African Queen,” the ride took park patrons on a guided tour of a variety of jungles throughout the world. On hand were animatronic animals, dorky jokes, and — let’s be honest — the unmistakable haze of smug imperialism.
Disney may be in the process of updating Jungle Cruise, the ride, but “Jungle Cruise,” the movie, isn’t trying to reinvent much of anything. It’s a pulpy World War I–era adventure about dashing hero Dr. Emily Houghton (Emily Blunt), her foppish sidekick brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall, “Good Omens”), and their hunky Amazon riverboat guide Frank (Dwayne Johnson).
They’ve got a treasure map that will lead them to a legendary tree called the Tears of the Moon, whose petals can allegedly cure diseases and — this will be important later — lift all curses. It’s a bit like “Anacondas: Hunt for the Blood Orchid,” except the snakes are a bit smaller, the dialogue is a bit sillier, and Jesse Plemons is gnawing at the scenery. He plays Prince Joachim, the youngest son of Kaiser Wilhelm, who wants the Tears of the Moon because he’s a nefarious no-goodnik who’s up to no good.
All of that would be more than enough for most adventure movies, but “Jungle Cruise” takes a page from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” recipe book and adds a bunch of supernatural monster people, presumably because Disney had too much money lying around. These villains are a group of cursed conquistadors led by Aguirre (Édgar Ramírez), who probably regrets incurring the wrath of god, because after slaughtering an Amazon tribe hundreds of years ago, he and his men are cursed with superpowered, unnecessarily elaborate monster ailments like being made of snakes and being made of bees.
It’s ironic that Aguirre’s punishment for killing lots of innocent people makes it easier for him to kill lots of innocent people. Or maybe “insipid” would be the better word. Then again, this is a movie in which Jesse Plemons conspires with supernatural honeybees who know how to read a map, so maybe asking for a modicum of rationality is too much.
What “Jungle Cruise” seems to be getting at — more than telling a story — is vacationism, which isn’t quite the same as escapism. The amusement-park ride transports visitors to beautiful new locales filled with awesome effects and a little humor. Collet-Serra’s film has those locales, even though some of the CGI additions look more awesome than others. (Frank’s pet jaguar Proxima is never convincing, not for one second, but we’re happy to go along with it because awwww… pet jaguar.) It’s a fun place to visit, especially with this particular tour group.
Emily Blunt should have been headlining adventure movies for decades now. She balances silly humor and rugged adventurousness as nimbly as any action star on record. Dwayne Johnson can match her bicker for bicker, stunt for stunt. What they lack in romantic chemistry, they compensate for with “rivals who become best buddies” energy. And then there’s Jack Whitehall, who tenderly delivers Disney’s first coming-out scene in a blockbuster movie, just a few scenes before his character becomes the focus of multiple, embarrassing, sophomoric, regressive double entendres. (Sigh.)
The biggest surprise of “Jungle Cruise” — besides composer James Newton Howard’s bizarre reliance on the theme from Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters,” for no discernible reason — is director Jaume Collet-Serra. The director has made a name for himself with harsh thrillers like “House of Wax,” “The Shallows,” and most vicious of all, “Orphan.” And yet with “Jungle Cruise” he proves himself capable of keeping the tone cheery for about two hours straight. If anything, it’s the horror elements that feel out of place in this film.
That “Jungle Cruise” feels insubstantial is no great shock. It’s got Dwayne Johnson making dad jokes and, again, a friendly CGI jaguar. Whatever thoughtfulness could have emerged from this story about the curse of colonialism tainting the future of the American continents for centuries has been washed away in computer-generated snakes and bees. All that matters is that the leads are dashing, the scenery looks nice, and by the time you realize you got nothing out of this time-consuming and forgettable diversion, Disney has already pocketed your money.
“Jungle Cruise” opens in US theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access July 30.